TTIP vs Europeans: A wake-up call for the Commission

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Earlier this month, Greenpeace activists projected sections of the leaked TTIP documents onto Germany's parliament building, the Reichstag. [Daniel Müller/Greenpeace]

The massive opposition to TTIP in Europe should convince the EU to listen to its citizens, as the issue has the potential, in conjunction with other factors like Brexit, to bring the whole idea of the Union into question, writes Nomi Byström.

Nomi Byström is a postdoctoral researcher in computer sciences at Aalto University, Finland.

In all corners of Europe, opposition to TTIP has swept like wildfire since the deal was announced in 2013. Huge demonstrations in Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Amsterdam, London, Helsinki, Vienna, Warsaw, Ljubljana and Prague show no sign of ending. In its first year alone, 3,263,920 people signed a petition against TTIP by a London-based charity. Not only do Dutch voters seek a referendum on TTIP, opinion polls make sobering reading on where most Europeans stand. Only a few days ago, it was revealed that some 70% of Germans see TTIP as bringing “mostly disadvantages”.

Needless to say, the documents released by Greenpeace Netherlands on the EU-US TTIP negotiations have not helped to muster support for the deal, on the contrary. They have even surpassed the worst fears of already wide public concerns.

True, neither the Commission’s nor the US stance comes as a bolt out of the blue, despite the fact that the deal has been negotiated in an extraordinarily secretive manner. One MEP’s account tells of surreal, bizarre efforts to limit access to the draft text. And this is not a lone experience.

There is something deeply disturbing already in the way the draft text has been sought to be kept hidden both from democratically elected representatives of their countries and, of course, from ordinary Europeans. This cannot be acceptable. All the more so because, if the treaty does come into force, it will have a profound impact on all member countries’ residents. While private companies stand to benefit the most, it is the people of the EU who will bear the brunt of the deal, as well as democracy and the environment.

To give only a few examples, TTIP could prevent compliance with the Paris Climate Agreement – something that the EU itself worked hard for – and hold a member state hostage to remain with fossil energy sources, despite its aspiration to move to renewables. Moreover, especially to smaller countries, the TTIP mechanism for Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), even in the guise of the Investment Court System, can become nothing short of an economic and environmental disaster. Not to mention the fact that TTIP may turn out to reduce rather than increase jobs in Europe.

Last but not least, the recent Schrems ruling highlights the invaluable role of the Court of Justice of the European Union in upholding the rights of the individual against a formidable and far more powerful mass surveillance machinery. The position of the Court and EU legislation should not in any circumstances be undermined and no deal be permitted to do so. Anything less and the EU would, in addition to Europeans, be shooting itself in the foot.

But be it threats to the rule of law, consumer protection, public health standards or any item on the very long list of major concerns reinforced by the Greenpeace leaks, there is an even wider, an underlying bleak realisation. And, no, it is not the vigour of the US stance promoting corporate power, as alarming as it is to say the least. Ordinary Europeans have an even greater worry.

American policy, though, on the surface of it, may seem not only perilous but even contradictory. At the same time as the US urges its citizens to ‘buy American’, it negotiates with the EU on free trade. And under Obama, Washington has openly characterised TTIP as strengthening American businesses. Needless to say, the lion’s share of Europeans does not agree with the US position on the TTIP talks. However, it can at least be seen through the lens of American negotiators pursuing what Washington perceives to be promoting central US demands. They are nothing short of fighting like a terrier to advance their aims.

The TTIP talks may grind to a halt and it is unlikely, if this happens, that many Europeans will be shedding tears – unless they are of relief. The latest revelations have proved one very sad and painfully worrisome fact: there is a gaping hole in the negotiating table. The biggest red flag is not the disquieting US position, but the weak, even absent stand of the Commission. And one thing has become crystal clear: Europeans have no power broker fighting for their interests and priorities and to ensure that their rights will not be bulldozed to the ground.

Any explanation regarding what has been revealed by the May documents as justified by the fact that the EU negotiators have the mandate of the 28 member states is not very constructive, but may even be considered arrogant and hoity-toity. Indeed, the mandate should not be construed as carte blanche and elected leaders are accountable to their voters. Certainly, as hundreds of cities, municipalities and regions register themselves TTIP-free zones and people mobilise to protect European values and democracy, the leaders of member states will be reminded of this accountability, should it escape their memory.

But above all, Europeans’ alarm over the manner and contents of the TTIP talks demonstrate that the Commission should finally drag its approach to the EU’s people into this millennium. Especially against the background of calls for transparency and reform decision-making; challenges of digitalisation and Brexit looming large.

Who is to say that, if the UK votes to leave, there will not be others joining the queue? In fact, Brexit could open a Pandora’s Box of questioning the entire European Union. The Commission must acknowledge its role in the public attitude to being part of the EU. And hear the profound concerns of its people, beginning with TTIP.

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